Claudio Vargas
Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Claudio Vargas warms up in the outfield at Miller Park before an exhibition baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on Friday. Jeffrey Phelps -- Associated Press

Capital Times columnist Mike Lucas and the four Madison.com sports staffers who are members of the Baseball Writers Association of America offer their predictions on the Major League Baseball season at hand.

Brewers

Tom Ziemer: 84-78

The pitching is significantly improved, no doubt about it. That alone should mean the Brewers will improve upon last season's 80-82 finish. But there are legitimate questions about the lineup apart from sluggers Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. Milwaukee needs Rickie Weeks to finally put together a season that's both productive and injury-free. The Brewers also have to find someone capable of protecting Fielder. The bottom half of the lineup is a concern. While I see the Brewers enjoying their third winning season in four years, I don't believe they have enough to make the playoffs.

Dennis Punzel: 84-78

Their pitching can't be worse than last year. The question is: How much better will it be? Yovani Gallardo figures to take another step toward becoming a true ace. Randy Wolf was the top free agent not named John Lackey, so he looks to be an upgrade. Doug Davis seems to be aging gracefully. So the keys are whether Dave Bush can regain his form of 2008 and whether Manny Parra can finally live up to expectations before he runs out of chances. At its best, it's a decent rotation.

The offense again revolves around Braun and Fielder, with Weeks looking like he could be another dynamic force. To be a contender they will need young speedsters Escobar and Gomez to get on base more than their histories would indicate and for Corey Hart to break out of his slump, which seems to be going on two years now. If everything breaks right, they could contend for a playoff spot. But how often does everything break right?

Mike Lucas: 85-77

Nobody will confuse the Extinguisher (Carlos Gomez) with the Ignitor (Paul Molitor), but Gomez could provide a spark with his speed -- not unlike a Tommy Harper, Scott Podsednik or Pat Listach -- if he improves his plate discipline and on-base percentage. Gomez, Alcides Escobar and Weeks should help the offense manufacture more runs, though the attack will continue to revolve around the Big Boppers (Braun and Fielder). The pitching staff should benefit from the additions of two lefthanded starters (Wolf and Davis) and one lefthanded-thinking coach (Rick Peterson). Skipper Ken Macha will benefit, too, from a year on the bench sizing up his personnel's strengths and weaknesses. If there's more of the former than the latter, the wild card is not such a wild-eyed reach.

Dennis Semrau: 90-72

It will come down to the final weekend of the season but it will take 92 wins to make the NL playoffs and Milwaukee will fall short of the wild card. A healthy Weeks will combine with arguably the best hitting duo in baseball in Braun and Fielder to lead a robust offense. Escobar is amazing defensively and along with Gomez will add much-needed speed to the lineup.

But there will be no C.C. Sabathia to give the pitching staff the midseason kick it will need to jump-start a playoff run. Starters Yovani Gallardo and Wolf and ageless closer Trevor Hoffman will make the pitching staff better, but the club will still fall a pitcher or two short of the playoffs.

Adam Mertz: 85-77

Kudos to Mark Attanasio for putting his money where his mouth is, fielding a team with an $85.7 million payroll that while just mid-range for major league standards is the largest in club history. The concern is, given his previously expressed ceiling of $90 million, that leaves precious little wiggle room for a midseason addition that might help shore up the team should it be in contention for a playoff berth in July.

And given all the "ifs" in the Brewers' outlook -- if Weeks can stay healthy, if Escobar and Gomez can get on base, if Casey McGehee wasn't a one-year wonder, if Hart can bat like he's not wearing sunglasses at night, if Bush or Parra can shore up the back end of the rotation, if Hoffman can keep sipping from the fountain of youth -- it figures there would be such a need, even in a best-case scenario.

Playoff predictions

  Tom Ziemer Dennis Punzel Mike Lucas Dennis Semrau Adam Mertz
NL East Phillies Braves Braves Phillies Phillies
NL Central Cardinals Cardinals Cardinals Cardinals Cardinals
NL West Dodgers Rockies Dodgers Giants Rockies
NL wild card Giants Phillies Brewers Braves Braves





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 World champ
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[Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect a correction. Dennis Semrau's National League wild card pick was initially inputted incorrectly.]

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